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European Review, Vol. 15, No.

1, 95–104 (2007) © Academia Europaea, Printed in the United Kingdom

Comparative Literature versus

Translation Studies: Close Encounters
of the Third Kind?

K.U. Leuven, Campus Kortrijk, E. Sabbelaan 53, 8500 Kortrijk, Belgium.
E-mail: Lieven.Dhulst@kuleuven-kortrijk.be

Translation has probably become the dominant means of communication

between European literatures and, in consequence, may be considered a
privileged object of study for Comparative Literature. Yet the complex nature
of translation has hardly been recognized as an interlingual as well as an
intralingual and intersemiotic operation. Translation between literatures covers
two possible directions and should be labelled accordingly as either
‘intranslation’ or ‘extranslation’. In order to understand the complex roles all
these translation forms have played during the history of European literatures and
of European interliterary contacts, an explanatory model is needed that links the
study of literatures and of interliterary relations: according to systems theory,
literatures are to be understood as complex networks of relations that regulate
both their internal structure and relations with other systems. Examples of
translation figures and of translation flows help to show how translations
contribute to the establishment of macro-European literary networks.

To start with
The mapping of Europe as a ‘network’ of literatures calls to mind quite different
concepts, such as distinct identities and interconnectedness. For many, the
‘network’ metaphor may appear nowadays as more fashionable than, say, the
‘melting pot’ metaphor or even the ‘salad bowl’ metaphor, since it seems to
express more adequately the way they think cultures ideally should talk to each
Yet, retrospectively, as we all know, the history of Europe has rarely matched
such a mapping. How, then, should we proceed from a scholarly viewpoint? One
might be advised to understand a network as an open, so-called ‘heuristic’
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metaphor, one that might help to locate the ‘relationalness’ between literatures
on a scale that goes from 0% to 100%. Such an approach would at least imply
the replacement of an ‘either/either’ (or ‘yes/no’) approach by a ‘when/how’ or
a ‘when/why’ approach. In other terms, we better not start from a priori
assumptions about the homogeneity and high relationality of the European space
or, on the contrary, about its heterogeneity and low relationality. Instead, we
should start from the assumption that it is possible to reconstruct types, contents
and degrees of relations on a diachronical axis: when, and under which historical
circumstances, did the idea of European literary relations emerge? How did it
materialize in different literary and critical traditions? How did it change and by
which constraints?
Generally speaking, interliterary relations are established in a direct way,
through multilingual communication, or in an indirect way, through translational
communication. One may safely assume that the latter has been, and probably still
is, the dominant means of communication between literatures worldwide.1 For
comparatists, translations are an important source of information to understand
the rapports de faits between literatures: what may they reveal of their openness,
of their literary preferences?
‘Translation’ should be understood firstly in its common sense of an
interlingual, substitutive operation engaging at least two discourse systems. In
addition, translation is an intralingual, substitutive operation manifest in many
types of so-called monolingual discourse (rephrasing, code-mixing, etc). Finally,
translation is an intersemiotic, substitutive operation engaging different media
(language and film, music and dance, novel and strips, etc). These different
occurrences of translation may be mixed to a certain extent, as in cases such
as the dubbing or subtitling of movies based on novels (the international
spread of The Da Vinci Code to name but one example). In the following, we will
deal more particularly with interlingual translation, taking into account two
translation directions: intranslation (from out to in) and extranslation (from in to

On translation and/in systems

It should be stressed at the outcome that translations belong to a rather vast group
of procedures that are used for the exchange of information between communities
(such as reproduction, plagiarism, hybridisation, adaptation, and so on). We have
only recently started to understand the nature, contents and effects of these
procedures, whether they concur or not, whether they distinguish or not, and so
on. So, what we know about translations will have to be checked, sooner or later,
with what we know about other exchange procedures used by members of human
Comparative Literature versus Translation Studies 97

Secondly, even if, for practical reasons, we justifiably want to limit our scope
to translation between literatures, it does not make much sense to understand
literatures as stable, well-delineated entities, more precisely as autonomous
discursive and institutional organisations, as organisations, in other terms, that
may be labelled by a single epithet: ‘Portuguese’ literature vs. ‘Russian’ literature
vs. ‘Dutch’ literature, etc. The underlying presupposition is of course that
literatures exchange only a limited number of products, and that these exchanges
have no major effects on their autonomy and internal cohesion: each literature
seems to have its own repertoire, its own distribution of genres and of writing
techniques, its own institutions, etc, in spite of its sharing of forms and concepts
with other literatures, or of its taking part in transnational relations, such as literary
movements. In fact, while doing so, we simply reproduce the 19th century model
of so-called national literatures – and no doubt many literary histories, educational
systems (including university departments) and other institutions (such as literary
criticism) are not willing to abandon, not even today, the idea that literatures are
by definition national literatures.
Maybe the appearance of translations (and of other transfer procedures) does
make sense only when we assume there are differences between the entities called
‘literatures’. Hence, our previously mentioned historical approach comes into the
picture: it is more fruitful to try to know which European literatures have been
intranslated more than others during their history; and which ones have been
extranslated more than others; and which literatures do not intranslate or
extranslate the same types of texts (novels, poetry, essays, etc); and which
literatures extranslate into non-European literatures as well as they intranslate
from the latter.
Yet, it would be naı̈ve to think that the pure accumulation of facts will be
sufficient to answer the ensuing ‘why’ question. In other terms, if we want to
advance our understanding of the role of translation within the complex interplay
between literatures, we need a model or theory that brings ‘when’ and ‘why’
together in an explicit way. It seems that systems theory, as developed by the
Israeli scholar Itamar Even-Zohar since the late 1970s,2,3 is one of the better
candidates to do so. According to systems theory, a literature is to be understood
as a complex network of relations that regulates both its internal structure and its
relations with other systems. Let us explore these two tenets.4
The first property of a system is the latent or overt tension between its
constituent strata. Each system has a number of central and peripheral strata,
‘strata’ being general labels for repertoires of different shape and type (genres,
macrostructural and microstructural devices):

It is the permanent tension between the various strata which constitutes the
(dynamic) synchronic state of the system. It is the prevalence of one set of
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systemic options over another which constitutes the change on the diachronic
axis. In this centrifugal vs. centripetal motion, systemic options may be driven
from a central position to a marginal one while others may be pushed into the
center and prevail.1

The main source of tensions, and of resulting changes in positions for the
different strata, lies in the unequal status and legitimacy of these strata. Dominant
groups tend to canonize specific strata, and, accordingly, to push other ones
towards the margins of the system. On the other hand, if the dominant strata resist
renewal or change, they may in the longer run lose their position in favour of
different, often lower ranked, strata supported by other groups of writers and
The second property of systems is a direct outcome of the first one, i.e.
‘relationality’, since tensions between strata cover a number of relations between
them. Historical analysis shows that a current type of relation depends on a current
type of system. More precisely, as long as the idea of a unified literary system
prevails, steered by a number of parameters, such as a centre–periphery hierarchy,
centrally controlled procedures of canonization and of allocation of genres and
writing techniques, the prevailing relations between the strata of the system may
be called ‘intrasystemic relations’, i.e. relations that take place between strata that
belong to a single system. More often than not, both the concept of system and
the resulting relations are in such cases supported by political and/or institutional
factors, which may also link the literary system with other cultural systems that
are produced by the same community.
On the other hand, when the system changes, i.e. when the parameters that sort
out the positions and functions within the system are no longer capable of exerting
control over its constituent elements, and notably over the system’s peripheries,
relations with other systems may very likely expand, without, however,
necessarily superseding intrasystemic relations. The functions of ‘intersystemic
relations’ are quite similar to the functions of intrasystemic relations, since, like
peripheral strata within a single system, exogenous systems try to challenge the
dominant strata in view of a change or replacement of the repertoires of the latter.
Translations are traditionally considered among the best barometers of the
intersystemic relations taking place between national literatures. Indeed,
translators are decision makers by vocation, they simply have to find practical
solutions to overcome language and culture barriers, and their solutions, whatever
their logic or extent, may reveal large bridges as well as major obstacles between
But simultaneously, translations may also be carriers of intrasystemic relations
between ‘strata’ belonging to one system, ‘strata’ being general labels for
repertoires of different shape and type (genres, macrostructural and microstruc-
tural devices); their functions are in such cases similar to the functions of
Comparative Literature versus Translation Studies 99

translations taking place between systems. Quite obviously, the only way to
understand the complex of available options as well as the constraints, be they
linguistic or literary, that influence the translator’s behaviour, is to carry out actual
translation descriptions of these two types, namely intrasystemic and intersys-
temic translation, and understand what they can tell us about intraliterary and
interliterary relations.

On translations in/between European literatures

Even if taking into account published translations only, and leaving aside the study
of the translators themselves, of their theories and techniques, and of the reading
and criticism of translations, we have not been able, so far, to collect even
representative samples for all European literatures of all periods, from the massive
transfer from Greek culture to Rome in the first centuries to the globalising trends
at the end of the 20th century. Therefore, what follows will be limited to a short
presentation with examples of the two translation types.

Intrasystemic translation
Intrasystemic translations take place within one system: they are carriers of the
relations between different strata of that system. In such cases, the latter make use
of different languages, translation taking place in a diglossic or in a multilingual
context. Such contexts have rarely been studied, and yet they have been the rule
rather than the exception in the history of European cultures: think for instance
of the opposition between Latin and most vernaculars, or between dialect and
standard language, or between older and newer variants of one language.
Translations may be defined as bridges between these strata. But their functions
are much more complex.
Let us consider briefly the case of Belgian literature in the early 19th century:
two languages coexist in the national space, each contributing through its own
genres and language forms to so-called ‘Belgian literature’. Yet, a tension between
both languages develops rapidly: French being the language of the cultural elite,
it is chosen to be the major carrier of the national literature in view of its optimal
positioning on the international scene. At the same time, the Belgian nation is
considered incapable of gaining literary, cultural and even political autonomy and
legitimacy in Europe because it lacks sufficient specificity. In other words, Belgian
literature needs to develop into a system in which literary language (register,
style), genres, writing forms, are up to a certain point different from what is offered
by the highly prestigious French repertoire. While it cannot compete with the
latter, it may at least try to become an established literature at the periphery of
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the French literary centre instead of being assimilated by the periphery of that very
One major option to achieve this goal is to enrich the Francophone production
with macro-structural devices (orality, lower genres, Flemish chronotopes) and
micro-structural ones (plurilingualism, popular dialogue forms, etc) that are
borrowed from Flemish culture and literature. In this process of cultural
hybridisation, intranslation plays an important steering role: it shows Francophone
authors how to transpose Flemish form and content elements into French.
But translation also means selection and manipulation: French intranslation is
limited to popular Flemish narrative (short prose) and poetry (ballads, songs),
which means that translation is also an instrument of intracultural domination
within Belgium: no need to translate novels or high poetry. Of course, the
respective positions of the strata may gradually change in the course of time. From
the viewpoint of the lower strata, such as literature in Flemish, one may easily
imagine that intranslation from French would equally be an option in the search
for a better positioning within the Belgian system. But this option has not been
successful, mainly because French was largely accessible to the Flemish reading
As a consequence, the scarcity of translations from French into Flemish has
been compensated (especially in poetry) by translations from other literatures
(such as German). In other words, since the first option did not lead to the
recognition of literature in Flemish within the context of Belgium, other options
have been developed, which helped to shape different contents and forms for
Flemish poetry, as a way of escaping intrasystemic domination. Intrasystemic
translation may thus be superseded by intersystemic translation and help to
establish new cultural communities, which by the way has been the case in
Belgium during the 20th century, when Flemish literature has gradually gained
Translations taking place within one European literature have hardly received
attention from comparatists. The reason, once again, has been that literatures were
predominantly understood as monolingual ‘national’ constructs. Time has come
to open up new perspectives into the study of intranslation of literary texts (or parts
of texts) produced in non-standard language (such as dialects), of texts belonging
to earlier strata of the system (such as medieval texts), of texts belonging to
minority literatures (such as creole literature in the Europhone Caribbean space),
Intersystemic translation
When different communities employ different languages, translation becomes an
obvious bridge between them. Thousands of so-called natural translations
between most European literatures have indeed been studied so far. Yet, it is still
Comparative Literature versus Translation Studies 101

not possible, to bare the main tendencies of translational behaviour or even to

answer more general questions such as: how much translation does a given culture
produce? Have there been major translation flows in Europe? What have been the
major functions exercised by translations? Did translations gradually contribute
to the very conscience of ‘Europe’, etc?
It may seem strange to ask these questions, but such questions are rather new,
and the attention towards them has been drawn by sociologists rather than by
literary scholars. For a long time, comparatists have limited themselves to the
X and Y option, as if literatures changed their translation methods and ideologies
according to the language pairs and literatures involved, as if translation from, say,
French into Spanish had little to gain from seeing translation from English into
Spanish, from German into Spanish, etc. It is, once again, the work by Even-Zohar
that has opened new vistas. In his seminal paper on ‘The Position of Translated
Literature within the Literary Polysystem’2 he develops the idea according to
which translation may assume an innovative or a conservative role within its target
literature. The first role depends on one of three possible conditions:
It seems to me that three major cases can be discerned, which are basically various
manifestations of the same law: (a) when a polysystem has not yet been
crystallized, that is to say, when a literature is ‘young,’ in the process of being
established; (b) when a literature is either ‘peripheral’ (within a large group of
correlated literatures) or ‘weak,’ or both; and (c) when there are turning points,
crises, or literary vacuums in a literature.2

The second role, i.e. conservatory, is no less prominent, on the contrary:

A highly interesting paradox manifests itself here: translation, by which new
ideas, items, characteristics can be introduced into a literature, becomes a means
to preserve traditional taste. This discrepancy between the original central
literature and the translated literature may have evolved in a variety of ways, for
instance, when translated literature, after having assumed a central position and
inserted new items, soon lost contact with the original home literature which went
on changing, and thereby became a factor of preservation of unchanged
repertoire. Thus, a literature that might have emerged as a revolutionary type may
go on existing as an ossified système d’antan, often fanatically guarded by the
agents of secondary models against even minor changes.
The conditions which enable this second state are of course diametrically
opposite to those which give rise to translated literature as a central system: either
there are no major changes in the polysystem or these changes are not effected
through the intervention of interliterary relations materialized in the form of

Nowadays more scholars try to promote international translation research in

several directions and, while it is impossible at this moment to give answers to
the general questions just raised, it is useful to show by some examples that
research devoted to more than one literature or to more than one pair of literatures
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may yield original insights. We will briefly, and in a very superficial way,
suggest two possible topics, i.e. the study of translation figures and of translation
flows. The figures at our disposal are based on statistics produced by national
agencies, which means of course that the latter only took into consideration books
produced in the so-called national language and within the borders of the so-called
As to translation figures in general (literature and other genres), some of the
most detailed results available concern translations into Dutch during the 20th
century.1 The main conclusions are as follows: intranslation has increased
considerably since the Second World War (nowadays up to 25% of all books
published in The Netherlands); the majority of these translations are based on
originals in English (over 60%), German and French represent between 10 and
12%; extranslation from Dutch is also growing, but in a proportion of 1 to 6, first
in German, then in English and French. These figures should be more detailed as
to distribution in genres (literature and other cultural practices) and in literary
subgenres in particular (translated popular narrative seems to become quite
successful in recent times). The European translation market is also growing, in
France, for example, intranslation represented 8.5% of the total book production
in 1838, and 19% in 1991.5 More generally, it seems, the size and international
position of languages is a major factor determining the exchange rates.6 As a
consequence, there seems to be less intranslation in dominant languages in
comparison with so-called peripheral cultures. This fact may help to understand
differences between intranslation into two dominant languages, such as English
and Spanish: one explanation for the low rate of intranslation into English (less
than 5%, and approximately 20% for Spanish) could be the dominance of
worldwide intralingual (‘intraenglish’) literary relations over interlingual ones.
On the basis of such figures, it becomes possible to hypothesize the existence
of macrosystemic networks of systems that are capable of determining translation
flows within Europe as a whole. We all know, for instance, to what extent French
culture has dominated other cultures for centuries (especially during Classicism).
Translation has very probably played a crucial role in the establishment and
dissemination of this dominance. Some years ago we studied the spread of
translations of one author over the Continent, i.e. Shakespeare during his
rediscovery at the end of the 18th century.7 Shakespeare has been channelled into
Europe via France and via French translations and translation models. More
particularly, French translations of Shakespearean drama were quite successful
in large parts of Europe (up to Russia), to the extent that they were preferred, not
only to the originals, but also to endogenous translations, and in a number of
cases they have even been translated themselves into the endogenous languages.
We should understand that translations were not only expressions of literary
norms, but that they became also actively involved in literary evolution. As a
Comparative Literature versus Translation Studies 103

consequence, during the second half of the 19th century, in Germany, in Poland,
Russia, Italy, Sweden and so on, French versions of Shakespeare have competed,
often strongly, with new endogeneous versions that became, at the same time,
symbols of a new poetics and often accompanied the emergence of national
It would be quite interesting to see what happens transnationally with other
major icons of European culture, such as: Homer, Virgil, the Bible, Marx, Freud,
Foucault, Derrida, etc. Such studies may reveal basic patterns of the attitudes and
strategies developed by one culture before being adopted by a chain of other

It should be clear, by now, that it does not make sense anymore to approach
translation restrictively, as an activity that is simply initiated by the absence
of language knowledge on the side of the receiver of the source text. It does so,
of course, because we write and read translations whenever there are language and
culture barriers. But translations do a lot more. They help to shape national
literatures, to regulate power relations between literary communities, to dominate
literatures and emancipate others. The extent that they have been able to
‘construct’ Europe is far from clear at this moment, at least they show that we
should ‘rethink’ Europe from a set of relational viewpoints. And we need adequate
methods to integrate the study of translation into comparative literature.
Does all this mean that translation should become the heart of comparative
literature, as some like Emily Apter have recently pleaded for?
In attempting to rethink critical paradigms in the humanities after 9/11, with
special emphasis on language and war, the problem of creolization and the
mapping of languages ‘in-translation’, shifts in the world canon and literary
markets, and the impact of enhanced technologies of information translation, I
have tried to imagine a program for a new comparative literature using translation
as a fulcrum.8

This may eventually happen, if enough people share such a belief. The criticism
of monolingualism and of nation-states may well be supported by translation, but
maybe the question is not as much whether we should or not ‘use’ translation, but
how we should study translation. Putting it bluntly: how much space for translation
studies as a discipline in its own right is a new programme for comparative
literature ready to accept? Translation studies has become a fully established
discipline in academia and seem capable of upholding its interdisciplinary status
for a while. Why should comparative literature be reluctant when it comes to
recognizing the conceptual apparatus and methodology that has been developed
for the study of translation?
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From a disciplinary viewpoint, translation studies should further develop

programmes using techniques for the investigation of the multifarious forms of
translation in society. One can only look forward to a truly interdisciplinary
dialogue between comparative literature and translation studies. Let us believe
there is hope for close encounters of a third kind.

1. J. Heilbron (1995) Nederlandse vertalingen wereldwijd. Kleine landen en
culturele mondialisering. In J. Heilbron, W. de Nooy & W. Tichelaar
(eds) Waarin een klein land. Nederlandse cultuur in internationaal
verband (Amsterdam: Prometheus), pp. 206–253.
2. I. Even-Zohar (1990) The position of translated literature within the
literary polysystem. Polysystem Studies, Poetics Today, 11(1), 45–51.
3. I. Even-Zohar (2005) Polysystem theory (revised). Papers in Culture
Research (Tel Aviv: The Porter Chair of Semiotics, Tel Aviv
University), pp. 38–49.
4. L. D’hulst (forthcoming) Intra- and intersystemic relations in the French
Caribbean: A research project. In L. D’hulst et al. (eds) Caribbean
Interfaces Caribéennes.
5. L. D’hulst (1998) ‘Traduire l’Europe en France entre 1810 et 1840’. In
M. Ballard, (Ed.) Europe et traduction (Arras-Ottawa: Artois Presses
Université – Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa), pp. 137–157.
6. A. De Swaan (1993) The evolving European language system.
International Political Science Review, 14(3), 241–255.
7. D. Delabastita & L. D’hulst (eds) (1993) Shakespeare Translations in
the Romantic Age (Amsterdam: John Benjamins).
8. E. Apter (2005) The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature
(Princeton: Princeton University Press).

About the Author

Lieven D’hulst is Professor of French and Francophone literature and of
translation studies at the K.U. Leuven, Belgium. He is the (co-)author of a number
of books and articles dealing with French and Francophone (Belgian and
Caribbean) literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, with historical and theoretical
translation studies and with literary terminology. He is the review editor of Target.
International Journal of Translation Studies, and the co-director of a series
‘Traductologie’ at Artois Presses Université (France). His research topics include:
the history of literature in Belgium (1820–1860), the design of theoretical and
descriptive models for the interliterary study of Caribbean francophone literature,
the historiography of translation and translation studies.